Last year a woman I know through mutual friends was violently assaulted while walking down the street in broad daylight. I never saw the CCTV footage that was reported on the news, but a few of my colleagues told me it was awful to watch.
In the weeks that followed I read many of her Facebook posts as she healed physically and emotionally. It was a psychological rollercoaster, and a ride that I unwittingly became a passenger to.
In 2014, I was assaulted while out walking one afternoon. It took me a long time to accept that what happened was assault. But as I read this woman’s grief and struggles, I found myself identifying with the fear she was consumed by.
I was walking along a footpath near the beach in a well-populated and busy area with my headphones on when two adolescent boys came up behind me. One was on a bike and one was on foot. With music playing, I didn’t hear them approach.
Before I knew it, one of them had grabbed me and groped me; placing their hand inside my shorts. Taken aback, I pulled my headphones out and turned around. They kept walking, laughing together as they looked over their shoulder. I was so shocked. To this day, I don’t know what come over me but I flicked the video camera on my phone and started chasing after them yelling as loud as I could, ‘How dare you touch me. That is assault. I will report you to the police’.
I was shaking so much I could hardly hold my phone. Despite looking young, you could tell they were tough — physically and mentally. I don’t think my high-pitched, erratic voice would have scared them in the slightest. They started running and one of the boys yelled over his shoulder, ‘Shut up bitch, I’ll come back and rape you’.
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When I finally got home, I went to the police station and reported it. With the vision on my phone the police could approach the boys in question.
It wasn’t a major incident. I certainly didn’t describe it as assault at the time. I tried to label it as ‘nothing’. People ‘accidentally’ touch you or brush past you inappropriately at pubs. He only put his hand down (or technically up the leg of) my shorts. But at the end of the day it was a violation of my body and my space. More so than the physical impact was the threat: I’ll come back and rape you. That was the line that played over and over in my head every time I left my house on foot.
I wasn’t scared as much as I was intimidated and daunted by what could happen if he really did follow through on his threat and come back to rape me.
I stopped travelling on that path. I took divert routes. Every time I saw a teenage boy in a hat my stomach dropped. I had no idea what the police had said to him. I didn’t know if he would have recognised me, but in my head, every boy I saw was him. I changed up my exercise clothes and started wearing a hat when I went for a walk and tucked my hair up.
Every time a bike zoomed past I jumped out of my skin.
I’ll come back and rape you. It was six words. But they had such a profound effect on how I lived my life for weeks after.
That wasn’t the first time I had been groped in broad daylight. In 2009, I was 19 and living in Sydney. I was walking home along a busy street in Coogee when a middle aged man who had been walking behind me, pushed past, and put his hand up my skirt. Unlike the boys, there was no further threat. He just smirked and said ‘sorry’ as he continued on.
As I watched him walk away I remember thinking to myself, was he allowed to do that? Maybe I should call the police. Then I thought; call the police and say what? A man just put his hand up my skirt and tried to touch my genitals? Would they laugh? Did people actually call to tell them that?
Once the man was far enough ahead, I kept walking. My house was only one block further. As I approached the next corner a man stepped out of a parked car and waved at me. “Are you OK?” he asked. I brushed off his question. He looked at me and said, “I saw what just happened. Are you OK?”
The unease and shock I had fought to ignore five minutes earlier gave way and out of nowhere I found myself in tears, overcome by deep sobs that got caught in the back of my throat as I struggled to breathe. I don’t know if I was embarrassed that he had seen what had happened or if I truly was overwhelmed by the turn of events.
He called the police and later that night I made a statement to a female officer. Before she left she told me that reporting incidents like this was important — even if it felt silly — because he might have only groped me. But, she explained, if people get away with that sort of behaviour, they become more confident and next time they might do something more.
Earlier this week the ‘Free to Be’ map was launched in Sydney. Free to Be is an interactive tool that aims to give women and girls the opportunity to report incidents of harassment and drop pins on a map to identify areas of the city where they feel safe, and areas where they feel vulnerable and in danger.
Prior to its launch, the NGO Plan International Australia conducted a survey of 400 women, aged between 18 and 25 who lived in Sydney. According to reports by the ABC, the survey found:
- 90 per cent of the women said they sometimes or always felt unsafe in the city at night
- 92 per cent felt uncomfortable taking public transport alone at night
- Half (49 per cent) had experienced street harassment
- Two-thirds (66 per cent) agreed street harassment was commonly experienced by young women in Sydney.
The statistics above reflect a long line of studies that have shown similar results.
The second Personal Safety Survey (PSS) completed by the Australian Bureau of Statistics in 2012 found that approximately “48% of women (4,221,100) and 18% of men (1,518,300) aged 18 years and over had experienced one or more of the selected types of sexual harassment behaviours during their lifetime”.
“In the 12 months prior to the survey, an estimated 14.8% of women (1,297,000) and 6.6% of men (554,800) had experienced one or more of the selected types of sexual harassment behaviours.”
In terms of definitions, the PSS explains:
“Sexual harassment was considered to have occurred when a person experienced or was subjected to any of the following behaviours which made them feel uncomfortable, or they found improper or offensive due to their sexual nature: indecent phone calls; indecent text, email or post; indecent exposure; inappropriate comments; and unwanted sexual touching.”
In a smaller research project conducted by The Australia Institute and shared by Stop Street Harassment, 87 per cent of 1426 females reported that they had been verbally or physically attacked while walking down the street.
Forty per cent of those women didn’t feel safe in their own neighbourhood after dark.
What happened to me, on both occasions, is hardly comparable to what the woman who was assaulted at Christmas would have endured.
But in a way, when I read her Facebook posts reflecting on how she missed her ‘freedom’ I knew exactly the type of freedom she was referring to.
The freedom to feel safe, and know you have the right to your own body and space. The freedom to live your life without the fear of what is around the corner or who might be waiting for you. Maybe I was naïve, but it was an essence of freedom that I never truly comprehended until I found myself in a vulnerable position.